Transcarceral spaces – (dis)empowerment in release from confinement

Heading back from the IBG conference in Edinburgh, I reflected on two fascinating papers on similar themes but drawing very different conclusions.

Menah Raven-Ellison described the experience of women released from immigrant detention in the UK and ‘dispersed’ into poor quality accommodation in towns and cities often distant from any existing family or support networks these women may previously have had. Although Menah is only part way through her PhD fieldwork, her impression so far is that these women experience extreme disempowerment, so much so that in her paper she characterised their status as ‘bare life’, after Agamben – beings entirely without agency.

By contrast, Avril Maddrell’s paper on UK male prisoners released ‘on licence’ from open prisons, detailed their experience of working in high street charity shops, and the positive effect that this activity seemed to have on their sense of self worth, and their motivation to find work on release.

Clearly it’s difficult to draw parallels between these two groups of previously or ‘semi’ incarcerated individuals. Both occupy what might be considered ‘transcarceral’ spaces after Allspach (2010), in that they are released from formal incarceration – in the case if the migrant women, no longer in formal detention, and for the men, on day release from open prison. Both still experience ‘re-confinements’ though – for the women, in the distant locations of their dispersal destinations, and the conditions of the accommodation in which they must remain, and for the men in the monitoring performed by the charity shop managers and the frequent reports back to the prison.

The outcomes, though, according to Raven-Ellison and Maddrell, are very different. For the migrant women these spaces of reconfinement represent for Raven-Ellison extreme denial of agency, whereas for the male prisoners, there is a certain degree of empowerment, with Maddrell describing some prisoners taking on a ‘security’ and surveillance role in charity shops and ‘spotting’ potential shoplifters, in a curious reversal of their own ‘surveilled’ status; and of charity shop work leading to shop management roles for some some prisoners after release.

In an RGS-IBG conference themed around Security of Geography/Geography of Security, these and many other papers provoked the audience to think about what security means. Given the overarching logics of confining asylum seekers and ‘mainstream’ prisoners, and of managing their release in ways which differ so widely in the outcomes for individuals, whose security is really being protected?

Identity and Imprisonment: voting, citizenship and bureaucracy

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that some prisoners in the UK should be given the right to vote, but the UK Prime Minister insists that prisoners will not be afforded this right.  Quoted in the Daily Mail, he said: ‘I have always believed that when you are sent to prison, you lose certain rights and one of those rights is the right to vote and crucially I believe this should be a matter for Parliament to decide and not a foreign court. Parliament has made its decision and I completely agree with it.’

Prisoners are allowed to vote in 14 European countries, including Ireland, Spain and Sweden, and there are 16 more where prisoners have limited voting rights, including Germany, France and Italy. Apart from the UK, the only other EU member states which deny voting rights to sentenced prisoners are Bulgaria and Romania, Hungary and Estonia.

In a recent piece in The Guardian, Caspar Walsh outlines his reasons for supporting prisoners’ right to vote; ‘A prisoner’s rehabilitation as a safe, responsible and productive member of society must include the most basic right of democratic process – the right to choose who governs us’. Prisoners’ rights (or otherwise) to vote are an aspect of their citizenship, and a form of expression of political views. In other jurisdictions, prisoners are forbidden from displaying political images in their cells. In India’s Kannur Central Prison, prison authorities removed photographs of political leaders displayed by inmates. Nearly 300 pictures, ranging from those of Latin American revolutionary icon Che Guevera to photographs of Indian Congress leaders, were removed from cells. The decision to remove the pictures was apparently in response to claims that political prisoners in Kannur had turned their confinement into “party cells”, and that the jail had become a “hot bed of party politics”.

Denial of aspects of citizenship is a problem on an entirely different level for the ‘Anonymous Aliens’ who are the subject of Melanie Griffiths’ new paper. She traces the struggles many migrant detainees in the UK have in meeting official expectations and requirements regarding the nature of identities and how they can be proved. Frequently migrants have no identity documents (or those they have are considered false), they come from countries with minimal registration systems, or are generally assumed to be lying about their identities. UK Border Agency caseworkers may also ‘disprove’ their claimed identities during refusal of asylum applications. This combination of processes, she argues, results in some individuals either lacking a bureaucratically recognised identity, or alternatively having multiple identities attached to them; both situations hindering their removal from the UK since a ‘genuine’ identity must be re-established in order for Embassies to issue valid travel documents. In her paper, Griffiths examines what happens to people in this ‘limbo’ state with one identity under dispute and another officially confirmed, arguing that individuals may become vulnerable to criminalisation and exceptional treatment such as indefinite incarceration. She argues that “people beyond identification techniques become increasingly bureaucratically problematic, making them simultaneously threatening to and vulnerable to state apparatus.

Although UK prisoners and their rights to vote, Indian prisoners and their confiscated political posters, and ‘anonymous alien’ migrant detainees with unproven identities face different challenges in different situations, the issues of identity, citizenship, empowerment and disenfranchisement are common to each. What is interesting is that in each case, the official response is motivated in part by the ‘threat’ that is perceived to emanate from these disenfranchised individuals. In India, prison wardens pronounced Kannur Central Prison impossible to manage whilst political activism was facilitated by display of images. In migrant detention, Melanie Griffiths identifies the threat to state apparatus posed by the anonymous aliens, and Caspar Walsh suggests that perhaps one of the reasons why the UK Prime Minister is so reluctant to allow prisoners to vote is because “if voting rights were given to UK prisoners, politicians… would need to canvas inside prisons for votes and listen to the voices of the wide range of citizens we have behind bars”. Although, as he points out, this canvassing could involve a genuine focus on the long-term rehabilitation of the individual, and lead to better post-imprisonment outcomes, it would undoubtedly be a considerable, and perhaps an unpalatable, challenge.